What's the conventional wisdom about experimental fiction in America? It began with Gertrude Stein — true — and, as the Irish story writer Frank O'Connor once put it, looks funny on the page — often true — and then basically went underground —false. Some of our greatest writers after Stein employed techniques exceedingly experimental (borrowed from the early modernists such as Joyce and Pound) in novels that we rank as great — "The Sound and the Fury" — and in short stories that we writers who come after regard with something resembling worship — Hemingway's "In Our Time."
So a writer such as Jesse Ball, who follows in the footsteps of these greats takes on a great burden and in his second novel "The Way Through Doors" suggested that he had found a way to create the same kind of intense response that the best realistic writers can call up in most readers. Certainly, with the giant letter Y with which he opened that book he announced his ties with the great experimenters of the 20th-century. In "The Curfew," his new novel, he holds off on the giant type until fully 50 pages in to the story, and used thusly it feels, alas, more like mannerism than experiment.
His story too evokes much less intensity than his previous work. "The Way Through Doors" played seriously with the problem of identity in the modern world and the nature of individual characters in modern fiction. "The Curfew" focuses on a narrower, if not less potentially emotional subject, a family that's trying to survive in an unnamed city in the midst of an undifferentiated political crisis tending toward fascism. But, alas, here, too, comes a falling-off, because Ball simply does not manage to wring from his material either the emotion or the delight most readers require to persevere in a work that tends much more toward allegory or mock-fairy tale than realism.
The novel's high points come this time around not in the narrative but in the language — "A sonata is not the passing of geese, it is not a stream's noise, not the sound of a nightingale. A violin does not speak, does not chatter. The catastrophe of a symphony's wild end is not a storm breaking upon land…" — but there are not enough of these passages to go around to make the thin puppet-show (his metaphor) of a plot keep the reader in thrall.
Now and then we find ourselves in an encounter with a young genius who hits all of the right notes the first time out. For most novelists the apprenticeship's approach toward a work of genius is long and hard. Jesse Ball has already given us a lot, and he promises a lot more. In the next book perhaps we'll see all of his high notes — the form, the thematic material, the fanciful allegory, the wild language — making beautiful music together.
By Jesse Ball
Vintage Original, 196 pg., $14.95
Alan Cheuse's newest novel is "Song of Slaves in the Desert."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun